Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EPIC MICKEY: Warren Spector's "Howard The Duck".

Epic Mickey
Disney/Junction Point Studios
Nintendo Wii
Rated E for everybody (in other words, if your kids won't go to bed, try sicking this one on 'em)

If you're a Disney fan, you've most likely heard by now about the new videogame title Epic Mickey, an exclusive title for the Nintendo Wii released just this 30th of November in time for the holiday season.

Delighted with the results of their first successful major collaberation with an outside company with Kingdom Hearts, a title so massively huge in both scope and popularity that it has gone on to eclipse co-creator Square Enix's own virtually classic Final Fantasy series to become the most popular videogame franchise on the surface of the planet -- not to mention having (apparently) finally learned that merely licensing their creations to be slapped on to a game does not instantly guarantee a successful title -- Disney has once again decided to take the plunge with another collaberation, this time with the help of Junction Point and Warren Spector, the designer behind such classics as Thief, System Shock and Deux Ex, and is hoping lightning will strike twice.

Ignoring their usual "let's wait and see how well it's received first" tactics normally reserved for projects they consider risky and experimental, Disney has launched an enormous advertising campaign this time around, including making collectable editions of both the game (which comes with a making-of disc, console skins and statue) and its official hint book, and plastering the game's images all over Disneyland's shuttle fleet. They're even created a special collectible brush-shaped Wii controller just for the occasion.

I picked up my copy on its launch date and have successfully completed it.

So... is it worth the hype and your hard-earned cash? And is it as brilliant as word-of-mouth claims it to be?

Now before I start in on the details on this title, let me just go out on a limb right now and openly state that Epic Mickey is easily the most absolutely atrocious piece of crap I have personally had the displeasure of playing since the equally horrific King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, and like that other title easily goes down as one of the absolute worst games I have ever played in my entire life. As a matter of fact, it actually manages to beat out even that earlier title simply because it is far more ambitious and so obviously had a lot of huge hopes pinned to it. After selling strongly for its first week or so, the game instantly lost steam the second word got out that it was a burnt Christmas turkey as opposed to the delightful holiday stocking stuffer everyone was expecting. Warren Spector was suddenly in deep, deep trouble when word immediately got out regarding the visuals and camera being so dreadful that Epic Mickey's would-be audience could not even enjoy the natural act of simply looking at his game. But then Spector found himself in deeper trouble still; Epic Mickey has, of course, become a notorious title, a whopping embarrassment of a project that immediately flopped big time after players everywhere ran gagging from their Wiis.

I hear Spector is not taking criticism of this title well: he apparently lashed out wildly at just the camera criticisms alone on MTV, and stands fiercely beside his obvious labor of love. Well, all I have to say is that, as it's his game and he obviously haves his own free copy of it, he is more than welcome to it and to love it to death as much as he pleases, because he may very well be the one and only loyal fan to the horrific mess that is Epic Mickey. If you dare sit through this game, numerous questions will be guaranteed to race through your mind. Here's a sample of what I caught myself wondering as I fought my way through Epic Mickey before finally hawking it in disgust:

1. How did this game manage to get such fairly reasonable scores with critics? It scores something like a 76 on Metacritic alone, and yet it doesn't even score that high. Did Disney pay off critics to write positives on Epic Mickey? Or is it that the reviewers didn't even bother to play beyond the first couple of levels or so when they gave it their official verdict?

2. Were the game testers for Epic Mickey all a bunch of stoners on crack and having a pot party while trying this thing? I keep hearing stories from Disney folks that the title's testers were all supposedly enjoying it so much that they didn't want to give it back. What on earth possessed them to think that this game was actually fun? What were they on that was so strong that they were supposedly so convinced of this game's brilliance? Did Disney spike the refreshments they personally provided for them? Or was that all deliberately made-up hype?

3. Who was the one in charge of quality control here, and exactly what kind of weapon did Spector hold up to their noggin in order to convince them that this title was ready for commercial release? I honestly can't imagine any self respecting professional in their position actually greenlighting this thing as being properly completed. Gameplay as boring and monotonous as all get out, graphics so dark that you can barely see what's going on, terrible controls, awful framerate slowdowns and easily the worst camera in history, and yet they thought that the thing was genuinely FINISHED? What kind of inhuman monster of a slave driver is Specter to get them to let it go out in this condition? And it's not as if the troubles with this title are so slight that they could have missed something.

4. Exactly how many gobs of cash did Disney waste on this monstrosity? Apparently it's one of those "undisclosed sum" ordeals, which means that it was insanely expensive and that the company is understandably paranoid regarding revealing how much they spent to make it because they know that the world will be sadly shaking their collective head in disbelief. Like you do after struggling through this thing, which can only be described as a unique form of torture from which you've gotten more entertainment value from root canals. Geez, all that money for this, you keep muttering to yourself in disbelief. What I could have done with money like that.

For those of you who don't know, here's the basic setup: master wizard Yen Sid -- using a magic brush, paint and thinner -- created what appears at first to be a tabletop model of Disneyland, but is in reality a special world called Wasteland, a place where forgotten cartoon characters of the past can live and dwell in peace, unsure of how they came to be there, but knowing that everything would be alright. Retired Disneyland park attractions also appear there as well. Mickey Mouse, sneaking in undetected, observes all this with fascination. After the well-meaning old wizard retires for the evening, Mickey approaches the table because he just can't resist the temptation to play with the brush. At first, it appears that he has created a little figurine of himself, but then his delight turns to horror as the little blob he has painted suddenly becomes a nightmarish version of the famous Phantom Blot (The "Shadow" Blot). In his panic to get away, Mickey accidentally knocks over the thinner, which dissolves into the tabletop Wasteland and ruins it. Many years later after achieving fame and fortune, Mickey is suddenly dragged violently out of bed one night by The Blot down into Wasteland itself, and the adventure begins.

Does this all sound like The Sorceror's Apprentice Part II? Of course it does. Both Disney and their collaboration team have bent over backwards to make sure that nothing in this game clashes with nor interferes with established Disney lore, always a must. What's unique about this project is that it allows the designers to run amok with the Disney archives and pull an American McGee's ALICE on Disneyland.

Indeed, the ALICE influence is all too blatantly obvious at the start of this game, right down to the sinisterly twisted opening laboratory setting and the background music, which at this point borrows heavily from Chris Vrenna's now virtually famous score of that earlier title. It also explores the same maturely crafted psychoanalysis story that encourages the player to look thoughtfully deep inside his or her self, just as ALICE did. And at first I had "ripoff" sirens searing through my brain faster than your average California Screamin' ride. But once you get outside and get to experience Wasteland itself, you'll find that, while the game still wears its ALICE influence boldly on its sleeve, the game settles down and becomes a far friendlier terrain for all ages to explore. In fact, all of the hype, previews and trailers Disney has been throwing at us all year now make the game seem a lot darker and more terrifying than it really is.

There is far too much detail for me to go into here regarding why this game is so terrible, and for me to attempt to do so and explain all the reasons would require an entry of, uh... well, epic proportions; trust me, you have to actually see the game in action for yourself to understand why it's such a disaster. So instead, let me point you over to a Youtube link kicking off a series of videos by an individual who had far more time and (fairly reasonable) patience on his hands to dedicate to this appalling travesty. (IMPORTANT NOTE: the individual in question uses a lot of extreme profanity throughout these videos, so parents please take note.) The videos are like the game itself; they start off harmlessly enough and seem fairly promising, but by the time they've progressed to the point of reaching the end the game has shed all pretense and revealed itself for the trash it truly is.

Epic Mickey is a title so awful that I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it ends up replacing the Atari 2600 failure E.T. as the most embarrassing moment in gaming history. It is a woebegone and dangerously overhyped dungheap that isn't worth the CD it's printed on, a misfit, a mistake that will be foreverafter known, not as Spector's beloved place in Disney history, but instead as his own personal Howard The Duck. This game is a tremendous artistic and financial risk tossed to the winds. It is the most worthless, ridiculous electronic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I have been playing videogames since the moment they first came out with Pong.

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